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The novel that shocked Victorian England

Painting by Frederick Walker. Culture Club/Getty

When Salford University slapped a trigger warning on Jane Eyre last month, people were up in arms, says Jo Waugh in The Conversation. But labelling Jane Eyre as a “dangerous text” is nothing new. When Charlotte Brontë’s novel was first published in 1847, a whole range of critics warned teenage girls against it. The novelist William Thackeray’s daughter Anny had to read it in secret. Even Brontë’s biographer Elizabeth Gaskell barred her eldest daughter from Jane Eyre until she had turned 20.

Many Victorians were deeply shocked by the novel. Some thought Brontë’s love story was too coarse, and that impressionable girls would start lusting after Rochester-esque men; others worried that Brontë’s sensationalist writing style could corrupt the English novel forever. But the main concern was that Jane Eyre was just too addictive. Brontë’s publisher, WS Williams, reportedly missed meals and meetings to finish the novel in a single day; Thackeray said he had “lost (or won if you like) a whole day in reading it”. Even Queen Victoria found it an “intensely interesting” read. By 1848, the American reviewer EP Whipple declared a national case of “Jane Eyre fever” as teenagers tore through the story, leaving fathers and mothers “much distressed”. All this fuss only increased the excitement around Brontë’s book. Chances are, Salford’s trigger warnings will have the same effect now.